Sacks are arranged on a wire across a pavement to provide privacy as cart pullers sleep at night in New Delhi. (Photo: AP/Saurabh Das)
At the end of their workday, after they have pulled their wooden carts for hours through the narrow lanes of New Delhi’s spice market, the exhausted men stop at little sidewalk stalls for something to eat, often a few handfuls of rice with some gravy on top.
Then, many of them manoeuvre their carts into some quiet space of pavement. It might be along an empty stretch of road, or in front of a shop closed for the night. That is where they sleep, spreading out their thin blankets on the carts they have pushed all day.
The market is called Khari Baoli. An institution since the 17th century, Khari Baoli claims to be the largest outdoor wholesale spice market in Asia, with thousands of shops operating in the maze of roads so small and crowded that trucks cannot get in during the day.
But, these men will tell you, the trucks don’t need to get in. They are the “thela wallahs,” the thousands of cart men who push and pull and steer thousands of tons of spices and other dried food every day through the market. They take it from trucks to warehouses, from warehouses to stores, and from one store to another.
The lowliest — the two or three assistants who help each cart man — earn as little as 50 rupees, or 70 cents, for a long day of work. Those who manage to buy their own carts can make more than 10 times that much.
A cart puller smokes a beedi, tobacco rolled in an indigenously available leaf, as he waits for traffic to clear in New Delhi. Cart pullers who own their carts make $4-10 a day. (Photo: AP/Saurabh Das)
A heavy load can weigh more than 650 pounds (300 kilograms), with boxes and sacks sometimes piled high overhead with spices, herbs, nuts, rice and tea. Pay for each load depends on the weight and the distance. Most of the men are freelancers, working for whoever will pay for their next load, though the largest of the trading houses keep these ‘thela wallahs‘ on the payroll. Many of the thela wallahs sleep in front of warehouses, hoping to pick up additional work when trucks arrive during the night.
Most of the men come from the poorest of India’s hinterlands, villages where even 50 rupees a day can look like good money.
Sometimes, the days can seem to last forever, with some pulling their carts for as many as 25 kilometers (15 miles). Maybe farther. By evening, many are desperate for a shot or two of cheap liquor to ease their aches.
But they are back at it again the next morning, working until they’ve saved enough to head home for a few months to see their families. And when the money runs out, they come back again to Khari Baoli.